Elvis Costello: His Aim Is Still True

Creative Loafing Tampa: Gabe Echazabal & Tracy May: 18th March 2015

For his current concert tour of select cities and intimate venues, veteran singer-songwriter Elvis Costello decided to go it alone. A rare series of one-man appearances is what his "Detour" tour is comprised of; nothing but a full night of the witty, multitalented entertainer delivering the goods all by himself. Luckily, a stop at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall was included on this limited run of shows. Monday night, a near-capacity crowd was treated to that unique blend of showmanship, comedy and charisma that Costello has so perfectly honed throughout his long and illustrious career.

Getting things started just after 9 and following a most impressive set by Atlanta-based sister duo Larkin Poe (more on them later), Costello ran onstage amid a backdrop of some of his videos being beamed onto a giant mock TV set at the rear of the stage. While it's unusual that the music being pumped through the sound system prior to an act taking the stage is, well, the act's own, it's never been Costello's bag to cling to the conventional.

Sporting a dapper navy blue suit and a snazzy, wide-brimmed white hat and glasses, Costello got things off to a rousing start with a snappy acoustic version of  "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," a classic from his landmark 1977 debut album, My Aim is True.

A virtual travelogue through Costello's treasured musical resume (and a few dips into the other people's compositions) was to follow for the duration of the evening. Randomly flipping through the pages of his storied songbook, dusting off obscure nuggets and delivering some of this best-known hits, Costello and his own brand of magnetism alone in the spotlight were all the folks filling the seats needed.

As various still images were illuminated behind him throughout the night, Costello took plenty of opportunities to insert funny anecdotes and pearls of wisdom between songs. Instead of following the standard performance format or leaning towards an unimaginative storyteller type of program, this show was more deeply rooted in a Vaudeville-inspired one-man show heavy on humor and wit.

A colorful story about a potential fling with a female cab driver in 1977 painted a vivid backdrop for a spirited rendition of "Accidents Will Happen." A disagreement over what to play on the car radio was an obstacle for Elvis and his lady cabbie; "I wanted to hear REO Speedwagon, she wanted to hear Journey," he chided. "So, we settled on Eddie Money."

Trading off between a series of guitars, both electric and acoustic, Costello continued to wow the delighted audience throughout the evening. Whether strumming furiously through a spirited version of his 1989 hit single "Veronica" or delivering a solemn rendition of his 2006 collaboration with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, "Ascension Day," Costello held a captive and entertained audience in the palm of his hand for the entire evening, and never lost focus.

A tender moment came when Costello sent out a dedication to his wife, jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall, and their twin sons. A heartfelt rendition of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," a song popularized by Nat "King" Cole in the early 1950s, came complete with a pitch-perfect whistling segment Costello delivered while sitting on a chair planted at stage right.

Sentimental moments were followed by ferocious stabs of rock and roll, too. The classic reggae-tinged "Watching The Detectives" reared its head as a twangy rocker that blossomed into a wash of fuzzy distortion, while audience members passionately sang along to the familiar tune. It isn't often that attendees are inspired to stand and dance along at most one-man shows, but Elvis has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and most of his fans have shared that belief too.

As Elvis lovingly discussed his father's career path as a bandleader and singer, he displayed images of Ross McManus behind him and told some hilarious stories about his dad before showing a superb, kitschy video of the man performing a rollicking version of "If I Had a Hammer" leading a massive band.

Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of opening act Larkin Poe accompanied Elvis on some of the evening's most welcomed and surprising numbers. Sporting their respective mandolin and slide guitar, the ladies added musical depth and stunning harmonies to the obscure 1984 ballad "Love Field" as well as to the fragile, gut-wrenching "Indoor Fireworks" from the classic 1986 album King of America.

Crowdpleasers "Pump it Up" and "Radio Radio" (presented in its original incarnation, "Radio Soul") again thrilled the crowd and found most up and out of their seats, singing and bopping along. After the front screen had been removed, Elvis found his way inside the massive television set at the rear of the stage to deliver some of the night's many encores, like a hushed version of his classic "Alison," which was met with audible "oohs" and "aahs."

Taking a turn at the grand piano on the stage, Costello belted out a slow, soulful version of "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," a 1967 Sam and Dave hit featured on his 1980 masterpiece Get Happy!!. While most in attendance might not have known Costello possesses the chops to kick out as masterful performance on the ivories as he delivered on this one, it's only another chapter in the solid book he writes every time he climbs on a concert stage.

It's hard to believe that after nearly forty years of making records, Elvis Costello is still gaining confidence and showmanship at this stage in his career. While always poised, naturally charming and charismatic on a concert stage, Costello only proved his worth and displayed many of the tricks he keeps up his sleeve on Monday night.

It's safe to say he not only showed what he's made of to any newcomers that might have been in attendance for his rare solo performance, but also oh-so-brilliantly proved to his many loyal followers that he, Elvis, is still the king.